Oct 30, 2012

Hurricane Update

Everything is fine here at my place. We have power and internet. DC seems to have missed the worst of the storm, and I'll be back at work tomorrow.

Oct 29, 2012

Caffeine Is Not a Bioweapon

I got into a discussion with Yves Smith about caffeine here, and somehow my comment got eaten, so I'd like to finish it up here. She said about this Raw Story piece about a girl who allegedly died from drinking two Monster drinks in two days, "The FDA lapse here is terrible. Caffeine is extremely toxic. We just happen to get highly diluted doses in coffee and tea." I commented:
Yves, your implication about caffeine is incorrect on several levels. Most Monster drinks have about 10 mg of caffeine per fluid ounce, which is much less than even drip coffee (18 mg/oz) and WAY less than espresso (51 mg/oz). (Source)
The whole idea of dilution is misguided in any case. The relevant measurement for caffeine intoxication (and most poisoning generally) is the total amount taken, not the concentration. Concentration is something to worry about, as it can make a lethal dose easier to take on, but the main concern there is pure caffeine pills, not energy drinks which are mostly hype anyway.
The median lethal dose of caffeine according to Wikipedia is somewhere around 175 mg per kilogram of body mass. So the average girl with a body mass of around 50 kg would need to consume about 9 grams of caffeine in a short period to be killed. That’s about 55 cans of Monster. For an ordinary person, two cans should be completely harmless even if you shotgunned them back to back, let alone over a 24 hour period.
I think the lesson here is 1) don’t take stimulants of any kind if you have a heart arrhythmia and 2) take media reports about “new drugs that are killing today’s youth” with a gigantic grain of salt.
She responded:
480 MG in a day actually is a pretty high dose (roughly 5 cups of coffee), particularly if you DON’T regularly ingest lots of caffeine (you do develop some tolerance). It’s also not at all improbable that the guy who died got a higher dose. None of these drinks are regulated; in dietary supplement land, it’s common for the actual dosage to vary considerably for the advertised level (generally it’s lower but it can be higher; there was a famous case when I was in Oz of serious health problems resulting from the latter, and in Oz, they regulate those buggers to produce at pharma grade standards, so they at least caught it).
1. Caffeine is extremely toxic. I had a friend who was a PhD chemist with 12 patents to her name, who was slumming (she had moved to where her husband had gotten a job and needed the work) in the sort of lab where they were sent substances and she had to decompose them chemically. For some reason she didn’t explain, they had a pound of pure caffeine in the lab. She was completely freaked out about securing and handling it properly, because she said if someone just got a dusting on their fingertip and put the finger in their mouth, it would be enough to kill them. She estimated that her 1 lb of caffine, if put in a municipal water system, would kill 50,000 people.
2. It is not all that hard to overdo on caffeine. I’ve been hospitalized for caffeine intoxication when in college, that and when I got a concussion as a teenager were the only times I’ve been overnight in a hospital. I was perfectly healthy but if you drink enough coffee (which is how I did it, cramming for an exam) you can really screw yourself up. I got my blood pressure down to 70 over 40.
And here's my final response:
I don't see how I misrepresented your point. You implied that coffee had a lesser concentration ("highly diluted") compared to Monster, which is incorrect, it is actually the opposite. 
The 480 mg fatality quoted in the Raw Story piece was over two days, not one. It is a sizable dose (a bit more than a venti coffee at Starbucks), but again, not anywhere near enough to kill a normal person. The dead girl had a heart arrhythmia.
And your chemist friend is badly wrong about the toxicity of caffeine. Again, the LD50 for a normal-sized person is on the order of several grams, probably at least 10. Even if we're conservative and say five grams is guaranteed death, one pound could kill only about 90 people (454 grams per pound divided by 5) and then only if you spoon-fed it to them. If you dumped it into a municipal water system, it would quickly be diluted into the parts per million and wouldn't kill anyone--you'd be spreading 90 people's worth of lethal doses around hundred of thousands of showers and toilets.
In short, the idea that caffeine can be used as some kind of bioweapon is utterly preposterous, which is why you can buy pharmaceutical-grade pure caffeine online for cheap (I've seen people gulp down quarter-teaspoons of the stuff in water, to no ill effect). Even DHS would be able to notice a security hole like that.
I agree that caffeine can be overdone, especially for people without tolerance or with heart problems. I've done it myself with caffeine pills driving home from college at night. But that's no reason to scaremonger about a relatively harmless drug.

Oct 25, 2012

George Bush Does Not Have a "Towering Legacy"

Jason Kuznicki has an annoying gloss on what is a mostly correct piece, "The Towering Legacy of George W. Bush." Here's the nut graf:
Conventional wisdom errs when it says that George W. Bush was incompetent. He was a president of overwhelming influence, the most effective chief executive since FDR. We live in the world that W. created, for good or — mostly — for ill...
It goes on about how one would expect. Yes, Obama has largely embraced the tyrannical Bush "security" regime. Unprecedented secrecy, unprecedented war on whistleblowers, illegal assassinations of American citizens with no due process, yes. All that is an extension of Bush's groundwork. But here's the thing—enormous power grabs do not make one competent. Bush failed to prevent 9/11, he ginned up a war on false pretenses for no reason, then got bogged down there and horribly bungled the occupation, then flailed ineffectively as New Orleans drowned. His Social Security scheme failed. His big-tent efforts to get Latinos in the GOP failed. Etc.

In short, Bush made a shambles of the government and his party. The fact that Obama is rolling in the same shit doesn't exactly exonerate Bush as much as condemn the entire political structure. We're in a decadent phase, maybe a terminal one.

And let's dispense with this as well:
The Bush deficits continue, driven by a combination of the Bush war spending, the Bush nonwar defense spending, the Bush discretionary spending, the Bush Medicare Part D spending, as well as the Bush tax cuts.
But the deficits are also driven by something a bit more insidious — when the supposed party of deficit hawks goes on a spending binge, we can all guess what the other party will do. And of course they did. One never pivots away from free candy.
What is that missing? Oh yes, the Bush economic collapse! Yet more incompetence. And please, expecting massive fiscal retrenchment during a huge recession is a recipe for a Great Depression.

Oct 24, 2012

The Econo-body Revisited

Matt Yglesias, notorious hater of metaphors, says they are the tools of Satan. And why? The answer, I presume, is that they can be super-good at instilling wrong or simplistic beliefs about things, and lazy journalists rely on them far too much. Nearly all political coverage, for example, is riddled with sports metaphors that fall to pieces on the most cursory examination.

However, I think it would be folly to abandon metaphor completely. The reason they are so commonplace—and the reason they're can be so noxious—is that they're powerful. When people are teaching or learning something for the first time, it's an almost uncontrollable impulse to try and explain that thing in terms of other things people already understand. The human brain's capacity to generalize, while dangerous, is surely a large part of its power.

So anyway, some months ago I came up with this complicated metaphor for the economy: that it's like a human body. Here's a sample, if you've forgotten:
I mean this in a kind of macro-anatomical sense. So the economy is composed of lots of interlocking parts. There are infrastructure and transport sectors, agriculture, money, information transmission, etc. It's tremendously complex, but when things are good all of them work in tandem so that most everyone who wants a job has one, factories are working at capacity, and so on. Similarly, the body is composed of lots of interlocking parts. You have a skeleton and muscles, the digestive tract, the circulatory system, the nervous system, etc. When everything is good, they all work together and you feel healthy. 
The order here is deliberate—in this scheme blood is analogous to money. In the economy, the banking system pumps money around the country where dollars are exchanged for goods and services. Inside the body, the heart pumps blood around where oxygen is "exchanged" for productive effort, like digestion, movement, or thought. 
So how can we think about a depression? In the real world, a depression is where we have lots of perfectly good unused capacity (idle factories, empty trucks) sitting around, while at the same time lots of unemployed workers desperate for a job. In our econo-body we had a heart attack (the financial crisis), and our circulatory system seized up and stopped pumping blood around the body properly. We got defibrillated by the EMTs (emergency actions in 2008-09) so we stopped getting worse, but now, we have persistent low blood pressure. This is the key idea. Our muscles are still strong, our organs are still in good shape, and our bones haven't rotted (yet). But we feel tired and weak all the time because our heart isn't delivering enough oxygen. We could be much more active than we are, going to work and playing with our kids, but instead we're sleeping all day.
I've had some thoughts about how this might be expanded and clarified. SR Waldman made the point on Twitter that equating the financial system to the heart gives them tremendous leverage when a financial crisis comes to justify shoveling giant piles of money into the banks—after all, if one's heart is in trouble, saving it is the first priority. This is definitely a worry.

On the other hand if we press forward, there are some more medical facts we could bring in. For example sometimes a bad heart is simply broken beyond repair, in which case we can put the person on bypass and give them a heart transplant. If someone's heart is just shot, repeatedly defibrillating them (injecting money into the banks) isn't going to do much good. This would be analogous to the government and central bank simply taking over the banking system and keeping things from collapsing, then totally restructuring the system from the ground up, as Sweden did in the early 90s. The extent to which you believe this is a necessary remedy will depend on how much you accept this formulation of our problems, but mainly it's an exercise to patch up the banking system = heart metaphor.

Or we could think of the condition of cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), with the natural suggestion of a too-large banking sector that has stopped pumping money efficiently and is in danger of collapse, killing itself and the econo-body at the same time.

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that while metaphors might way overused, they can still be useful, especially in teaching new things. As I've written before, basic economic analysis of depression conditions is one of the most poorly understood things in our national discourse. Anything that might ameliorate that is worth trying.

Oct 23, 2012

In Defense of Austerity as a Concept

Tyler Cowen posted this aside yesterday:
Now I am all for the UK trying ngdp targeting, or for that matter well-targeted fiscal policy, or both. I never favored their *tax increases*, often misleadingly labeled “austerity” for political reasons.
We then had a short Twitter conversation where I failed to convince him that even though he just doesn't like tax increases going into the austerity box, he should run with it anyway because ain't no way you're dislodging that one from the discourse.

But I chewed it over a bit more, and I really do not see where he's coming from. I would define austerity as "some combination of tax increases and spending cuts with the object of improving a government's balance sheet—meaning reducing debt or accumulating a surplus." And the reason everyone has been dumping on austerity for the last few years is that in a depressed economy (especially one in the Eurozone where the periphery has no control over monetary policy) reducing government spending reduces aggregate demand, worsening the depression, while increasing taxes takes money out of people's pockets, reducing aggregate demand and worsening the recession. Austerity seems like a good basin for these statements.

There are some more complicated explanations I've read but none more convincing than that kind of crude Keynesianism, and the latest evidence seems to support it quite strongly. Am I missing something?

Oct 21, 2012

I Like this Political Strategy

Mockery is underrated. Glad to see the president agrees:

The Failure of the Liberal Idea Machine

I was talking to a colleague in the office the other day, critiquing the first presidential debate. He was talking about how Romney's responses were all organized around the theme of jobs, and Obama needed to calibrate his answers similarly. He suggested the lack of maintenance of the Bush years as a theme, something along the lines of how for 20 years we did nothing about spiraling cost of healthcare, didn't fix our education system or rotting infrastructure, and made no investments in renewable energy. I pointed out that he could also organize around the idea of economic stimulus, Keynesian or otherwise, that being the whole point of the Recovery Act, which prevented depression.

"People don't want to hear about more government spending to hire a bunch of bureaucrats," he replied. "Trust me, they just don't."

I assume my colleague, who is a lot more experienced than me, is probably correct about general belief. But I got to thinking, and more and more I believe this is an enormous problem. Because on the straight economics, all those policies about fixing long-term problems, while worthy in themselves, are totally irrelevant to the question of creating jobs in the short term. In an economy with weak demand and a slack labor market, there are two ways to create jobs: Keynesian fiscal stimulus (government spending) or monetary stimulus through the Fed. Those are the only games in town, and if Democrats don't convince people they work, the Republicans certainly won't.

This is why I get so frustrated when progressives like Steve Benen buy into the deficit cutter's frame:
To add a little historical context to this, over the last four decades, only two presidents have reduced the deficit this much, this quickly: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama...
Obama, whether the public realizes it or not, has a record he can brag about when it comes to deficit reduction -- very few president in American history can boast about having inherited a massive deficit, then cutting it by nearly a fourth in just one term.
Dean Baker explains what this means in practical terms:
That is why those of us who believe in national income accounting and arithmetic praise the budget deficits every day of the week. In the short-term there is no alternative way to drive demand. The folks pushing for lower budget deficits are calling for less growth and more unemployment.
In other words, all that deficit cutting is a major reason the unemployment rate remains so high. If it were a lot bigger, Obama would probably be cruising to an easy re-election on a rising tide of prosperity. To his credit, Steve does admit that deficit reduction may well be a bad thing, "but for the purposes of political conversation, such an argument is probably a non-starter; the public has come to believe a deficit that's getting smaller is good news." The problem with this kind of reasoning is well explained by David Dayen:
The public has come to believe the wrong thing, and if Democratic partisans refuse to straighten them out on it, there’s no way to change that mentality. Partisans who use the deficit data to bolster the case for their party consign the country to continuing austerity and will make it impossible for government to carry out the functions of progressive policy, or to stimulate the economy when the need arises. It’s an extremely dangerous game.
This confusion about deficit spending and economic stimulus has a very long pedigree. Hoover was a fanatical deficit cutter, and FDR's first vice president, Jack Garner, ended up trying to sabatoge Roosevelt's presidency in part over balancing the budget. Fast forward to 2011, and witness House Blue Dogs complaining about Obama's lack of deficit reduction. As Yglesias points out, this is directly at odds with their electoral interest:
Democrats in marginal seats have the most at stake in short-term macroeconomic fluctuations. Liberal Democrats aren’t going to lose their seats no matter what happens, but [Blue Dogs are] at risk. The problem here, which has been a problem from the beginning, is that lots of members of congress genuinely don’t believe in Keynesian economic prescriptions and nobody’s managed to persuade them.
Emphasis mine. So maybe the economics of stimulus is just too intuitive, and the logic of cutting the deficit too intuitive, to ever gain traction in the mainstream discourse. Still, the Republican propaganda machine has seen remarkable success driving coverage of total nonsense. It seems worth a shot to get people talking about the actual economics of jobs.

 And by the way, when voters got to pick the questions in the last debate, not a single one was on the deficit.

[Cross-posted from Political Animal.]

Oct 18, 2012

The Torture of Solitary Confinement

Shane Bauer, one of the hikers who was imprisoned in Iran awhile back, investigated the conditions in the solitary confinement ward in a California prison:

Read the full article here. Horrible.

Oct 17, 2012

A Bittersweet Milestone

So, more than a year after coming home, I've finally finished my last consumable product I brought back from South Africa—some shaving gel. It's strange to think back on those days, so vivid and yet so distant, sort of like remembering a movie I've seen a thousand times. Seems like it didn't happen to me but every detail is still perfectly clear in my mind. I will always remember my Peace Corps times as a grim failure, mostly, but it's finally starting to be tinged with a little fondness and nostalgia.

Obviously, I don't shave that much. Also obviously, I'm super cheap.

Not sure what's up with the Cyrillic.

Oct 15, 2012

Climate Change Is Simple (My Project Unveiled)

It's a Reid Gower-style illustration of a David Roberts talk, set to some music. Check it out:

Probably pretty amateurish, but I figure video editing is a good skill to have and this is one of the best ways to learn.

I got mostly finished with this days ago, but I've been obsessively tweaking it for probably too long and I'm starting to question my aesthetic judgement. I think the smart move is to just let it loose and see how my loyal readers react. So if you've got a few minutes, I'd very much appreciate any feedback, aesthetic, technical or otherwise.

Nutcase Mountain Bikers

Way more than I would ever be able to handle:

Oct 12, 2012

Jesse Osmun, Former Peace Corps Volunteer, Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison

Sorry for the downtime here, I've been working on a special project (about which more later). But as I promised last year, here's the latest news from the case of Jesse Osmun, the South Africa PCV who was arrested for sexually abusing children:
A judge sentenced a former Peace Corps volunteer to 15 years in prison for abusing girls under the age of 6 in South Africa while he was a volunteer there, federal officials said.
The sentencing was announced Thursday in a statement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Jesse Osmun, 33, of Milford, Connecticut, joined the Peace Corps in 2010 and worked in a nongovernmental organization's AIDS center for children whose families had suffered or died from the disease, his attorney, Richard Meehan, Jr., told CNN Thursday. Osmun volunteered as a Web designer for the center and worked with older children in a "scout" program.
While there, Osmun engaged in sexual acts with four girls, all under the age of 6, officials said. One girl was abused twice a week over the course of approximately five months, authorities said.

Oct 6, 2012

Don't Blame the Baby Boomers for Everything

A perennially popular topic these days is blaming the Baby Boomers for screwing up the country. Here's the latest example:
Ultimately, members of my father’s generation—generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964—are reaping more than they sowed. They graduated smack into one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. They needed less education to snag a decent-salaried job than their children do, and a college education cost them a small fraction of what it did for their children or will for their grandkids. One income was sufficient to get a family ahead economically. Marginal federal income-tax rates have fallen steadily, with rare exception, since boomers entered the labor force; government retirement benefits have proliferated. At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose twelvefold from the time the first boomers began working until last year, when they began to cash out their retirement. (The growth trend over the 12 years since I entered the workforce suggests that the Dow will double exactly once before I retire.) They will leave the workforce far wealthier than their parents did, with even more government promises awaiting them. Boomers will be the first generation of retirees to fully enjoy the Medicare prescription-drug benefit; because Social Security payouts rise faster than price inflation, they will draw more-generous retirement benefits than their parents did, in real terms—at their children’s expense. The Urban Institute estimated last year that a couple retiring in 2011, having both earned average wages, will accrue about $200,000 more in Medicare and Social Security benefits over their lifetimes than they paid in taxes to support those programs.
Those retirees and near-retirees bequeath a shambles to their offspring. Young people are unemployed at historically high levels. Global competition is stronger than ever, but American institutions have not adapted to prepare new workers for its challenges. Boomers have run up incomes for the very wealthiest Americans, shrunk the middle class, and, via careless borrowing and reckless financial engineering, driven the economy into the worst recession in 80 years. The Pew Research Center reports that middle-class families today are 5 percent less wealthy than their parents were at the same point in their lives, after adjusting for inflation, even though families today are far more likely to include two wage earners. Another Pew report shows that those ages 55 to 64 are 10 percent wealthier today, even after the Great Recession, than Americans of that age bracket were in 1984. Those younger than 35 are 68 percent less wealthy than the same bracket was in 1984.
I of course wouldn't dispute any of those facts. The economy of the Bush years was horrible, and only the recent depression makes that time seem better. The American economy is a shambles. What I would dispute is the interpretation of these facts. Here's a chart decomposing the top 10% of earners from 1917-2008:

And here is labor's share of national income since 1940:

You can see in those graphs that there is a paradigm shift around the mid-70s and early 80s. The top one percent of earners' slice of income heads into the stratosphere (where it was before the New Deal and WWII), and labor's share of income is crushed into the dirt. What we're seeing now is the logical endpoint of those trends. It doesn't seem to matter who is president or who is in Congress; broadly speaking, for the last 40 years the stinking rich have been getting richer at the expense of the broad mass of society. This says to me that these forces are in a sense mechanical.

It's true that when the Boomers came of age, America was right in the middle of its greatest-ever economic boom. This is a direct result of the massive fiscal stimulus of WWII, the debt scrambling of the Great Depression, and highly regulated finance. For awhile everything went well, but eventually people forgot about the Depression, and bankers figured out again just how much money could be made standing astride the bloodstream of capitalism. The rich were eventually stripping so much money out of the economy that they choked off wage growth, which eroded consumer demand. Thus the rich started loaning to the middle class, which got weak, slow growth going, but led to a debt bubble and crisis.

Or, as Kevin Drum explains:
  1. Income inequality goes up.
  2. As a result, earnings of the middle class become sluggish....
  3. And earnings of the rich skyrocket, a trend reinforced by lower tax rates on both labor and capital income.
  4. Rich people eventually run out of sensible things to invest all this money in (because consumer demand is sluggish, see #2), so they get stupid.
  5. Stupid money finances stupid loans to middle-class borrowers who can't afford them (because their incomes are sluggish, see #2).
  6. This all works great until it doesn't. When it doesn't, the economy goes kablooey.
All this is to say that these things are not the fault of the Boomers in particular. They just happened to be in line for running the country when the underlying faults in the economy went kablooey. It's just as much the fault of the people who originally loosed the chains of finance back in the 70s, and in particular Paul Volcker, the man who more than any other broke the back of labor in the early 1980s. So cut the Boomers a little bit of slack.

(Of course, the flip side of this argument is the old people who feel entitled to complain about how young people are lazy and irresponsible these days need to put a fucking sock in it.)

Oct 4, 2012

Laptop Screen Bleg

This is a picture of my laptop screen, which I bought new about a year ago. It's a Toshiba Satellite L755 with a dual-boot installation of Win 7 and Linux Mint 11. As you can see it's divided itself into thirds and swapped the left and right thirds. On the right side of each third it's got a few dozen pixel-wide vertical stripes each a pixel apart.

It's doing it in both Windows and Linux, which makes me think it's a hardware problem, and probably in the chips somewhere. I can't find much help online, but a new computer would be a major expense I'd like to avoid if possible. Anyone got any advice?

Oct 2, 2012

Iran Should Get a Nuclear Deterrent as Fast as Possible

Glenn Greenwald says today what should be obvious by now:
That Iran will use its nuclear weapons against the US and Israel is rather obviously the centerpiece of the fear-mongering campaign against Tehran, to build popular support for threats to launch an aggressive attack in order to prevent them from acquiring that weapon. So what, then, is the real reason that so many people in both the US and Israeli governments are so desperate to stop Iranian proliferation?
Every now and then, they reveal the real reason: Iranian nuclear weapons would prevent the US from attacking Iran at will, and that is what is intolerable.
It has become clear in the last decade that the United States is a deranged beast when it comes to the Middle East. We have done almost nothing good there, and killed hundreds of thousands of people, including many thousands of our own troops, in the service of making things worse there and here in practically every conceivable way. I still believe that on balance we are among the least-worst global empires, compared to history—we haven't deliberately starved tens of millions, at least—and we don't act this way in Africa, or Asia (anymore), but when it comes to the Middle East, the United States is not just an aggressive, imperial warmonger, we're catastrophically stupid.

The Iraq War was in my view the most purely idiotic policy in US history. Others, like Vietnam, were plenty dumb, and probably worse for the country, but they are all at least somewhat more understandable. In 1963 Hitler's sweep across Europe was still fresh in the mind, and the Soviet Union's image was of the massed tanks of the Red Army, which defeated Nazi Germany almost single-handed, not the crumbling basketcase we think of today. The Iraq War, on the other hand, is something you cook up after a week-long ether binge.

Greenwald quotes Thomas Donnelly, a Project for the New American Century scholar (a member of the ether trust):
To be sure, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a nightmare. But it is less a nightmare because of the high likelihood that Tehran would employ its weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups – although that is not beyond the realm of possibility – and more because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon US strategy for the greater Middle East. The danger is that Iran will 'extend' its deterrence, either directly or de facto, to a variety of states and other actors throughout the region. This would be an ironic echo of the extended deterrence thought to apply to US allies during the cold war.
And Don Rumsfeld:
Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis.
The reality today is we are the regional crisis. In total lockstep agreement with an out-of-control Israeli regime bent on war, the US presence in the Middle East is the most destabilizing and chaotic element in the region. Iran would do well to seek the only deterrent capable of avoiding war: nukes. Indeed, this is probably in America's own interest as well, properly conceived. We can't afford another pointless sucking chest wound in the national treasury and military. It would be a stabilizing influence.

And the idea that Iran would launch a unilateral national suicide mission is laughable. It just isn't credible. Even Ahmadinejad understands the logic.

Please Iran, save us and you from ourselves.

Also, for a much more level-headed version of this argument, see this in Foreign Affairs.

Oct 1, 2012

Why TED Is Still Pretty Cool Sometimes

Ben Goldacre unloads on the medical-industrial complex:

Not many places where you will hear that kind of baldly radical rhetoric widely displayed to an elite audience. You can pre-order his book here.